The lines are drawn, the shoulder pads pulled tight. Sweaters and tailgating supplies around the Bluegrass are being prepared for another installment of University of Kentucky football.
The Herald-Leader does the honor of previewing, in-depth, the upcoming season. I'll simply provide some color.
As is often the case, a certain unfounded optimism abounds. Call it wishful thinking or an honest assessment of improvement, but it's there. Though there are some who have begun to caution against it, as every year seems to bring the promise of change, a chance at newfound success and, ultimately, more of the same.
This year, the blooming hope for ressurrection comes again from the backfield. Over the past 20 years, Kentucky has on many occasions fielded a strong individual skill player or two. From Mark Higgs to Artose Pinner and everyone in between, these NFL-talented players have gritted their teeth and persevered, despite a lack of talented depth surrounding them.
This may be the case again, this time for Rafael Little, who finished fifth in the nation last season in all-purpose yards from scrimmage. Include Sports Illustrated among those who have pegged the diminuitive scatterback as one to watch.
But despite the hype of Little, and the promise of an improved defense, most feel Coach Rich Brooks will need at least six wins in 2006 -- his first season out of probation sanctions -- and he'll need to beat someone other than just Vandy and Mississippi State (something he's never done at UK) to get there.
To do that, Brooks, and offensive coordinator Joker Phillips, will need to get super effort from a talented but untested offense. Again, the biggest problem here is not talent but experience and depth. For the Cats to make strides, simply scoring two touchdowns isn't going to cut it. Returning quarterback Andre' Woodson needs to grow up and show the kind of skill that made him a top prep recruit or he'll lose his job to the younger, less polished, but more athletically gifted Curtis Pulley.
The Herald-Leader gives you some more players to watch in its preview edition, including wideout Keenan Burton, who has game-changing ability.
SI puts the prediction at 3-5 SEC, 5-7 overall. That would mean taking care of business against two cupcakes (Texas State in the post-Louisville game, Louisiana-Monroe in the pre-Tennessee tilt) slotted into the schedule. Central Michigan -- the yearly MAC foe -- is also a winnable game. SEC wins will again be hard to come by, as the league is probably the nation's deepest, with only Vanderbilt, Ole Miss and Mississippi State on paper beatable for even a middle-of-the-road UK. A down Tennessee could be ripe for plucking, depending on the health (mental and physical) of the Cats at the schedule's tail end.
All in all, it's shaping up as simultaneously a do-or-die year for the Brooks administration, and a more-of-the-same year for the Kentucky program, barring unforseen (and much welcome) improvement on both sides of the ball.